Study of polemic by bin Laden mentor is crucial to fighting extremist threat, argue academics. Geoff Maslen reports
Australian academics and university librarians have protested about the forced removal of books on terrorism from a restricted section of the Melbourne University library.
Join the Caravan and Defence of the Muslim Lands were written in the 1980s by the Palestinian Islamist Sheikh Abdallah Azzam, who has been described as "the godfather of jihad". They were banned by the federal Classification and Review Board.
The Council of Australian University Librarians warned that academic freedom and Australia's capacity to respond to terrorism had been put at risk by the ban. It said that if academics and students were unable to read what extremists were saying, they could not understand their thinking, present alternative views or guard against their threats.
Diane Costello, the council's executive officer, said that university librarians were particularly concerned that under Australian law it could be illegal to hold books dealing with terrorism even if they had not been banned or assessed by the review board.
The Federal Police initially asked the board to order that Sheikh Azzam's books could not be sold or displayed in a public place. The board refused, but federal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock asked it to reconsider.
After lengthy discussions, the board members agreed to a ban on the grounds that the books were likely to "promote, instruct or incite in matters of crime or violence".
Sheikh Azzam was a mentor to Osama bin Laden, helped lay the foundations for al-Qaeda and is believed to have been assassinated by Soviet agents in 1989. The books in question call for Muslims to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Richard Pennell, al Tajir lecturer in Middle Eastern history at Melbourne, last year asked the university library to buy the two books for an honours course he teaches on the history of jihad.
Mr Pennell said that it was hard to study extremism without the books because they were important in understanding the climate of ideas that produced radical jihadists.
Glyn Davis, Melbourne's vice-chancellor, wrote in protest to Mr Ruddock, saying that removing the books limited ongoing legitimate research and education.
"We note recent public comments attributed to you that such materials can be used for academic research and education so long as the books are not publicly disseminated," he wrote.
The National Tertiary Education Union has warned of the "chilling impact"
on academic research of the Government's counterterrorism measures. Carolyn Allport, its president, said: "University researchers and students are not the enemy, they simply seek better understanding of the threats facing Australia and how we can respond effectively."
Mr Ruddock was unavailable for comment last week.